Creating a Sustainable Food Future

Tim Searchinger, a co-founder of Princeton Studies Food and host along with co-founder Gordon Douglas MD ’55, of our conferences, has with colleagues at the World Resources Institute finalized a years-long project, the ‘World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future’ . The report “offers a five-course menu of solutions that shows we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 without increasing emissions, fueling deforestation or exacerbating poverty.” Among the top solutions: Reduce food loss and waste; shift to healthier and more sustainable diets; avoid competition from bioenergy for food crops and land; and achieve replacement-level fertility rates, in part by increasing educational opportunities for girls. Click here to watch his segment of the WRI video introducing the final version of the report; here’s a Washington Post editorial about the work; here’s a Time piece that quotes him on the subject. Follow his Twitter feed @TSearchinger or email him.

Studying food for a livable future

Princeton scientists and scholars have long forecast that without focused and sustained action, we can expect a perfect storm come mid-century or before: water shortages, food scarcity, biodiversity collapse and a burgeoning population on the move, all exacerbated by extreme weather as our planet heats.

As the new IPCC report illustrates, many immediate actions are required at federal and international levels. Research shows, however, that institutions, municipalities, families and individuals, with informed choices, can effect change locally, and with that change, build momentum for broader actions.

Two powerful choices we can make as individuals and as small groups and as institutions are reducing food waste and switching to a mainly plants-rich, minimally processed food framework.

Reducing food waste is not news; New Jersey, in 2017, established a state-wide food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030 and here’s the draft Food Waste Reduction Plan. The NJ goal is to reduce the quantity of food waste by reducing the volume of surplus food generated, feeding hungry people and feeding animals. There’s good news on plants-rich diet efforts, too; scroll down to read more on alumni efforts in the K-12 education sector.

At a more fundamental level, there is food-systems related academic progress, as well as operational progress on campus.

PRINCETON ENVIRONMENTAL INSTITUTE, with its new Food+Environment track, is at work accumulating relevant courses for study. One standout introduced last spring is American Agrarians, which explores agrarian history, philosophy, theology, and literature and is a partnership between Tessa Desmond, research scholar and lecturer in American Studies, and Nate Stucky, director of the Farminary, a 21-acre farm that is part of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Another course under development is an undergraduate seminar by Professor D. Graham Burnett that examines history, history of science, and current scientific issues related to agriculture, food production, and the human “management” of nature. These join the Environmental Nexus course taught by professors Steve Pacala and Rob Nixon; the Agriculture, Human Diets and the Environment course led by Professor Dan Rubenstein with assistance from Campus Dining under the nascent Food and Agriculture Initiative; and a list of others.

RECENT HIRES: There’s also an inspiring list of recent hires: Andrew Chignell, who has a developing interest in food ethics, and recently co-produced (with Will Starr at Cornell) a Massive Open Online Course on “The Ethics of Eating”;  Anu Ramaswami, who is helping to make the Minneapolis food system more sustainable and equitable; and Caroline Cheung, whose research focuses on the history of the Roman Empire and draws on material and textual evidence to study the socio-economic history of non-elites under Roman rule and ancient food and agriculture.

THE OFFICE OF SUSTAINABILITY, under the direction of Shana Weber, has published a Sustainability Action Plan. Its 38 pages include these choice nuggets related to food:

  • Added 262 filtered water stations;
  • Though water use has increased over the past decade (goal is to reduce by 26 percent over 2008 levels by 2046), a success, considering the high water footprint of beef compared to plant-based options, is the Princeton Crafted Burger, a part-beef, part-plant entree.
  • Recycling rate for consumer items (including mixed paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic) has gone down 23 percent since 2008, largely due to contamination of recycling stream with food scraps…but Princeton plans to reduce recycling contamination by expanding collection of food scraps beyond the current dining hall composting program to other locations on campus; and,
  • Princeton plans to continue to divert edible food to the community in efforts to reduce food waste.

However, even more important than using excess food to feed hungry people is making the right amount of food instead of an excess, according to the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy.  On that effort we support and advocate for the campus group Greening Dining and its analysis of food scrapings at dining halls and at eating clubs. We suggest expansion of the project to include calculating the general Life Cycle Analysis of each wasted food category, conducting interviews at scraping stations and in the production kitchens to determine, say, the top 10 reasons for wasted food, and, with zero waste as the goal, developing and implementing a plan to address all issues. Could this work be paired with the food waste reduction efforts under way at the state level or with the James Beard Foundation’s Food Waste Culinary Instructor Curriculum?

As progress is made toward the target of 50 percent reduction in wasted food, what of the dwindling amount of uneaten food that becomes “waste?” To reduce methane emissions, wasted food must be diverted from the landfill, if not for industrial uses to produce energy, then for composting. The best solution, in terms of waste diverted, emissions reduced and jobs created is centralized composting, according to research conducted by ReFed, a nonprofit that “takes a data-driven approach to move the food system from acting on instinct to insights to solve our national food waste problem.”

At the Office of Sustainability, Gina Talt ’15, food systems project specialist, leads the collection of a portion of food scraps produced on campus, then processes them into compost using an in-vessel biodigester. She plans to expand the program to include more campus locations and events.
Follow the Office of Sustainability on Twitter @TigersGoGreen.

CAMPUS DINING SERVICES, under the direction of Smitha Haneef, lists culinary principles (see at right), and writes that it “sources grass-fed beef and antibiotic-free, humanely treated and locally produced chicken for all residential and retail operations” and is a business partner in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Nearly 80 percent of its seafood purchases are categorized as sustainable in accordance with Seafood Watch principles.
Further, all coffee served in the residential college dining halls and in the Food Gallery at Frist has received Rain Forest Alliance certification….More than 60 percent of all food purchases are local, organic, fair trade, socially responsible, humanely treated or sustainable. Forty-six percent of all food purchases are produced within 250 miles of the university, including produce, baked goods, cheese, milk, beef, pork, poultry and eggs.”
Follow on Twitter @PrincetonDining.

Ag tour of Nature’s Nation

Please register and join us on Thursday, Dec 6 for a special agriculture-oriented tour of “Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment,” at PU’s Art Museum. The tour, offered at start times of 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m., will look closely at the role of agriculture depicted in the exhibit and will facilitate conversations about agriculture, the environment, and art. Click through here to register for time slot you prefer: . Guests are welcome to explore the exhibit before and after the tour as well. This event, organized by Tessa Desmond, research scholar in American Studies, and Adrian Hyde, executive director of Northeast Organic Farming Association-NJ, is part of the international Being Human Festival; sponsors are the Humanities Council, the Program in American Studies, Princeton Studies Food and NOFA-NJ. Visit for more information on the festival; the PU Humanities Council is hosting local festival events: For information about the Nature’s Nation exhibit, visit:

Plants-rich meals guide published

Alice Wistar ’20, of Greening Dining and Princeton Studies Food

Building your appetite for a plants-rich diet that optimally powers your body while reducing harm to the planet? Craving fried plantains? Avocado toast and chia seed pudding for breakfast?Wondering what you might find if you venture off-campus and get hungry?Now you have a comprehensive plants-based guide for campus and community eateries that ranks current options, thanks to Alice Wistar ’20, of Greening Dining and PSF and her team! Here’s the PDF.

Peter Singer: Thoughts on Food Day

“If we want to continue to have food, and we want to continue to have a world with a climate that is inhabitable, then we need to think about the food we’re eating. We can’t just go on eating more and more meat and animal products because this is simply not sustainable. It uses up too much of the world’s resources and it’s responsible for putting out too much of the world’s greenhouse gases. If we want to have a long-term sustainable future, we can’t keep growing that. We have to bring that to a stable and eventually, a reducing component of animal products, because it’s the plant-based foods that provide more of what we need for fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”
— with thanks to Smitha Haneef of Campus Dining

Save the date: Friday, Feb 22

Planning for our fifth annual Princeton Studies Food conference — this one in celebration of Princeton Environmental Institute’s new Food+Environment program of study — is under way. Please do mark your calendars and plan to devote most of Friday, Feb. 22 to solutions-oriented discussions and Q&A on water as prerequisite to the food chain. We also are planning additional events: a screening, in partnership with the Garden Theatre, of Leviathan, a documentary shot in the North Atlantic and focusing on the commercial fishing industry, with Professor D. Graham Burnett, author of Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, offering introduction and discussion afterward; and a campus visit of James C. Scott, professor of political science and founding director of the Agrarian Studies program at Yale.

More to come as it develops.